If you grew up in the late ’80s or early ’90s, it’s likely that you remember the joy of picking a comic off the shelves of your local convenience store, supermarket, or drug store. If you were really into the beautifully drawn newsprint treats, then you probably recall how the stories and characters that they centered on were absolutely everywhere. News reports, t-shirts, cartoons, and an ever-growing number of specialty comic shops made comic books feel universal in a way they hadn’t since, one imagines, the Golden Age heyday.

Huge issues and events like X-Men #1 and The Death of Superman made comic books into cultural milestones, but those very same big issues — alongside a growing speculation market — eventually sparked a market crash that almost killed comics along the way.

Over the last few years, we sat down with some of the key players of the ’90s boom and crash to relive one of the most successful and volatile eras in comic book history, while also trying to learn if the lessons of the past could help stop history from repeating itself. Their recollections are published here for the first time.

Comics Comics Comics

It might seem like we’ve reached peak saturation when it comes to comic books and pop culture, but in the late ’80s and early ’90s comics were nothing less than a cultural phenomenon, and not just because of the massive success of Batman ’89 and its unprecedented merchandising and marketing campaign. This was largely due to the fact that it was incredibly easy to find and buy them in most of North America. Their accessibility paired with an affordable price tag of around $1 meant that the superhero-focused titles were consistently selling. Alongside the cultural zeitgeist of Tim Burton’s blockbuster movie, comics were suddenly in the spotlight.

Over the years thanks to Stan Lee’s famed Stan’s Soapbox and Bullpen Bulletins columns in the back of Marvel issues, the legend of the fun, frantic, and near-mythic Marvel bullpen was something every reader wanted to experience. Iconic writer/artist Bob Layton found a home at the publisher years earlier, which he recalls lived up to the legends. “My initial time at Marvel was a fortunate era to be breaking into comics. My contemporaries and I were in the process of redefining the Marvel Universe for a whole new generation,” Layton told IGN. And he’s not wrong, as during the period David Michelinie and Layton were crafting their iconic Iron Man run, Chris Claremont and John Byrne were in the process of creating one of the most beloved X-Men arcs of all time, Walt Simonson was redefining Thor, Frank Miller and Klaus Janson were reshaping Daredevil, Bill Sienkiewicz and Doug Moench were doing groundbreaking work on Moon Knight… and that’s only really scratching the surface.

It wasn’t just the already established creators who were putting in the work that made the comics so exciting and profitable as the ’80s progressed, though. Newcomers like Todd McFarlane and Jim Lee were just beginning to make waves that would change the industry forever. “It was a special time… a changing of the guard that was a defining moment in the history of the company,” Layton reminisced. “It was a fun place, an artistic Animal House with some highly creative and loony frat brothers. That atmosphere continued throughout my time there, for the most part.”

Working alongside their icons whilst trying to carve out their own paths was a balancing act for creators like Jim Lee, who is now President, Publisher and Chief Creative Officer of DC Comics, but was only 23 when he got his first paid work for Marvel (penciling an issue of the lesser known title Alpha Flight). “When I was breaking in, I was really just transitioning from being a hardcore fan to being able to draw the characters that I loved. So it really felt like a personal celebration, an achievement that I’d always dreamed about.”

An Underdog Rises

In 1989, whilst Marvel was enjoying a renaissance, across town a new comics company was being born. Valiant began life in a fifth-floor loft in downtown Manhattan with a starting staff of just 10 people. The new publisher shared office space with entertainment attorney Lauren Davis — the daughter of record mogul Clive Davis — who just happened to work with Valiant’s publisher Steve Massarsky in representing recording artists. The company was founded by Massarsky and former Marvel EIC Jim Shooter, who would soon use his connections to hire Layton.

It was an opportunity to avoid becoming a ‘wage slave’ to the comic industry. -Bob Layton

To the man who defined Iron Man for over a decade, it felt like times were changing and fans were beginning to reject what the Big Two were offering. “Good writing had taken a backseat to flashy, gimmicky packaging,” Layton explained. Shooter brought the cartoonist over from Marvel in order for Layton to “co-create the new Valiant line of characters and act as Production Manager for the art and editorial on the Gold Key line of superheroes: Magnus, Solar, and Turok.”

So why would a high-profile creator like Layton leave one of the biggest comic book publishers in the world at the peak of an industry swell to join a new company? “It was an opportunity to avoid becoming a ‘wage slave’ to the comic industry,” Layton told us. “I left Iron Man, at the height of its popularity, on the promise of owning a piece of what I created. There is no retirement program or union for comic creators. You simply do the same job, day-in and day-out, until your body fails or you get fed up with the low pay and long hours. Dick Giordano, my beloved mentor, taught me the business of comics as well as the creative aspects. We both saw Valiant as a chance for me to make a difference for the whole industry and for my career in particular.”

It was only when he took on the job that Layton realized something was amiss. “The decision had been made to sit on those [Gold Key] properties and pursue Nintendo and WWF licenses instead.” The decision was a major miscalculation, with Layton stating that “millions of dollars were lost to those ill-conceived projects.” It was then that the company decided to commit to the Gold Key characters which, according to Layton, “became a last-ditch effort to save the company from insolvency.” He recalled the unstable atmosphere as staff lived under threat of closure at a moment’s notice. That would soon change, however, with the release of Valiant’s superhero line. “I believe that the real turnaround happened when I convinced my best friend and co-collaborator at Marvel, Barry Windsor-Smith, to lend his considerable talents to Valiant. I know for a fact that it was Barry that gave the new superhero line a true credibility in the direct market.”

The Young and the Restless

In 1991 Marvel broke records with X-Men #1, which to this day remains the biggest-selling comic of all time at over 8 million copies. Penned by Chris Claremont — who had headed up the team over 17 years through their most successful period — and drawn by comics’ biggest young star, Jim Lee, it was a smash hit that featured five different covers and outsold every other comic in the marketplace by literally millions of copies. It was also a landmark moment as it presented a changing of the guard for the title and the company, as just two issues later Claremont would leave the book. Adjectiveless X-Men — as it’s called by fans — was an unmitigated success and should have put Marvel in the driving seat of the comic book boom. But behind the scenes, a rebellion was brewing that would see a new player enter the game and change the face of comics forever.

To understand what happened next you need to understand something that is integral to Big Two comics: work-for-hire contracts. In layman’s terms, it means that no matter what you create under the banner of Marvel or DC — and some smaller publishers — it will always belong to the publisher, and unless you sell sizable amounts of the book, you’ll likely never see much in royalties. Todd McFarlane, Rob Liefeld, and Jim Lee were definitely earning royalties. As Spider-Man #1, X-Force #1, and X-Men #1 proved, their work had a huge impact on the audience and was reinvigorating comic book sales.

One of the several covers of X-Men #1. (Marvel Comics)

So along with a few friends, they came up with a plan… if they were selling the books, why not start their own company? In a now notorious duo of meetings, the group sat down with the execs at Marvel and told them they would be leaving, then headed straight over to the head honchos at DC to let them know they wouldn’t be joining. And so Image Comics was born. The creator-owned company would become the first of its kind and its books would soon be at the top of the charts.

Wanting to own their own stories after the massive success they had at Marvel and DC was part of what drove the group to found the company, but for McFarlane it was also about protecting themselves from the damage that the industry had wrought on their predecessors.

“I saw what they did to the [Jack] Kirbys of the world, people I looked up to,” said the Spawn creator. “Then also within that, the fact that the audience sometimes just shifts to the cooler, hipper thing. If that’s not you, then all of a sudden you can atrophy real quickly. To use an example, Curt Swan who did Superman for so long, the phone just stopped ringing because his thing wasn’t as cool as what the new generation was doing, so it was suddenly like ‘Curt doesn’t draw like Jim, Rob, and Todd.’ Then suddenly Curt is now an old man and he’s got no place to go. I saw that happen to a couple of people and thought, ‘Wow, okay, make sure you protect yourself against that.'”

Going Going Gone

Newcomers weren’t the only ones who had grown discontent with the superhero business. After years of helming Marvel’s wildly successful X-office alongside Annie Nocenti and Chris Claremont, writer and editor Louise Simonson was fed up. “One of the things that used to happen in the olden days — and maybe it still does right now — is that if you got pissed off with one company, then you would just hop over to the other company, which at the time was between Marvel or DC,” Simonson explained. “I’d been experiencing some annoyances at Marvel so when my colleague asked me to go over to do a new Superman book, I was thrilled to do it.” It was part of a chain of events that would lead to the only comic to come close to X-Men #1’s insane order numbers, with a title that would become widely known as “the biggest selling graphic novel of all time.”

These were groundbreaking prices for products that had once essentially been seen as completely disposable.

At this point, though, the creators of The Death of Superman didn’t even know he was going to die, and before they made that choice something else would happen that would help shoot comic book collecting into the mainstream and end up throwing the industry into chaos.

On December 18th, 1991, Sotheby’s first-ever comic book auction saw a collection of titles sell for record-breaking prices. It was a landmark moment for the industry and was the ripple that would set off the tidal wave of the speculation boom. On that chilly winter morning in Manhattan, Detective Comics #27 — Batman’s first appearance — sold for $55,000, over $20,000 more than its original estimate. Marvel Comics #1 fetched $28,600, which was actually tens of thousands less than expected. Those two behemoths were joined by the first appearance of Captain Marvel — now better known as Shazam — in Whiz Comics #2, which sold for a relatively tiny $9,900. These were groundbreaking prices for products that had once essentially been seen as completely disposable. Ironically, it was that disposability that led to the scarcity which afforded older comics their inherent value, a fact that was widely ignored but that would become monumentally important in the following boom and inevitable crash.

It just so happened that the auction in New York brought McFarlane, Lee, and Liefeld together as they headed to Sotheby’s to sell their original art from series like Spider-Man, X-Force, and Jim Lee’s complete work on X-Men #1, which ended up racking up $44,000 for the entire issue. It was during this fateful weekend that the trio would cement their plan to leave and start Image Comics. Liefeld had already asked his friend, Guardians of the Galaxy writer Jim Valentino, and McFarlane’s successor on Amazing Spider-Man, Erik Larsen. Lee brought Uncanny X-Men star and studio mate Whilce Portacio along for the ride, bringing the roster up to six. But with the comics community gathered in the Big Apple, they decided to strike, managing to also secure the final member of their team with the established stalwart Marc Silvestri. Image Comics shook up the industry, giving Marvel and DC an unexpected new competitor made up of some of their biggest ex-stars. In fact, the seven creators who left the Big Two at the end of that year to start Image had worked on 44 of the 50 biggest-selling books of 1991.

At this point comics were still being sold by multiple distributors and channels — although that was all about to change — and no matter what sales figures you look at, Image was doing some severe damage. The company’s first release, Liefeld’s Youngblood #1, came sixth in monthly sales, a huge feat for a non-Big Two book. But the next month McFarlane’s Spawn #1 was the best-selling comic in the country, outpacing Marvel’s flagship title X-Men. By the end of the year, according to the sales stats of Diamond Comic Distributors, Image had four of the top books that had been released, which was an unheard-of accomplishment for a company that hadn’t even been around for 12 months.

The crew was changing the face of comics, and although it was doing wonders for sales and the profile of the once-forgotten medium, not everyone was happy about it. Lee still remembers the derision that some of the old guard had towards the young guns. “I think the previous generations didn’t know what to make of the work we were doing. That’s just natural; every generation is going to feel the new generation are doing despicable work or are destroying the art form, and we certainly came up against that. We were labeled the young punks. There were other more pejorative words for us too, the young whatevers. I think that kind of banded us together even more. Who knows? I mean, that might have really been one of the reasons Image formed, because it was us against the world, our critics, and whoever wasn’t happy with the changes we were making in comics.”

A Tale of Two Superheroes

With the ever-growing popularity of superhero comics and a new swath of talent, Valiant was planning something big. “They were a successful competitor to Marvel and DC but not hugely successful,” Kevin VanHook, who joined the company in 1992, said. “They were staying alive. I got there at the right time; we launched a company-wide crossover called Unity and it was enormously successful. Our books started snowballing from there. So we went from maybe selling 40,000 copies on the high end to selling several hundred thousand copies on average. Then I co-created Bloodshot, which got to almost a million copies. So it was a very quick March to November turnaround for this rapid sales increase.” And it just so happened that Bloodshot would share a release date with another huge title that would become the biggest-selling comic of the year.

Whilst VanHook and Valiant were beginning to craft a space for themselves in the superhero market, DC Comics was planning a wedding. For months the Superman group had been crafting a huge event that would center around the nuptials of the titular hero and his long-time love, Lois Lane. But when the arrival of the new TV show Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman put an end to that plan (the corporate suits didn’t want the comics to clash with the show’s storyline), something happened that would change the face of DC and the comics industry for decades — and it all started because the creatives behind the Kryptonian hero were less than happy, as Simonson recalled. “We were pissed off! So Jerry Ordway said, ‘Let’s kill him.’ And we said, ‘Yeah, let’s kill him.'”

The Death of Superman (Superman #75) was the best-selling comic book of 1992. (DC Comics)

It was a split-second decision that would lead to the creation of one of DC’s most iconic books. “It wasn’t deliberate; we didn’t know it would be so successful,” Simonson told IGN. “I knew — I’m sure everybody who works in comics knew — that death sells.”

Even so, the Man of Steel writer wasn’t counting on it dominating the sales charts. “Maybe some of us were, but I personally hadn’t been thinking of it in that context,” she said. “For one thing, we kill characters all the time. You know characters are going to be back because it’s comic books. I never ever kill a character that I don’t know how I’m going to bring back.”

Despite all of that, a chance news pickup changed everything, making the choice to kill Superman an international headline. Even though, as Simonson pointed out, Superman was a vastly popular and profitable character who was never going to realistically be killed off in any kind of definitive way, that didn’t seem to matter to fans and the media. “In the end, it was so very successful partly because it was Superman, of course, but partly because it was a slow news day. For some reason CNN decided to make a big announcement out of it, ‘Superman dies,’ and all of a sudden it was a really big deal. I had friends in France who were American and were berated by a fellow driving a cab because the Americans had killed Superman: ‘How dare they?'”

The Rise of the Collectible Cover

The Death of Superman (Superman #75) would go on to be the best-selling comic book of 1992, making a huge impact that still exists today. Valiant wouldn’t replicate that success but they were creating their own legacy, which would have a long-term impact on the industry. “We did something that we called Gold Books as a thank you to our retailers. If you buy so many titles of something we’ll give you so many Gold Books, which would have a gold ink logo on the title,” VanHook recalled. If that concept sounds familiar it’s because the Valiant Gold Books were essentially the original version of the now infamous incentive cover that drives much of modern comic book sales. This invention opened up a new income stream for Valiant that would define much of its output. “We also had variations where there might be a special sort of Gold Book which was embossed,” continued VanHook. “What these did was, in addition to creating something that was a thank you to retailers, it created a unique collectible variant. It got to the point where some people in the comics press referred to us as the Franklin Mint of comics because we created and manufactured collectibles.”

We would come out with a book and two weeks later it would be selling for 75 bucks. -Kevin VanHook

Someone who’d tried to get a similar concept off the ground at Marvel during his widely popular run on Amazing Spider-Man was McFarlane, who shared a story about his attempt to have two versions of a cover for the landmark 300th issue, which at the time was unheard of. “There’s Spider-Man in the black costume on #300 and then on #301 it was him in his normal costume, same pose, with the white background,” he said. “I was proposing to do both of those for the same book, because he’s going to jump back into his red and blue at the end of this book, so we could have a little bit of each. Their response was, ‘Todd, nobody does more than one cover for a book. That’s silly.'” Ironically, DC had done just that with 1986’s Man of Steel two years earlier, creating the first comic book to be marketed with the variant covers that would soon shift the industry into an entirely different space.

Marvel changed their tune with 1990’s Spider-Man #1, which famously had the company’s first variant covers and foreshadowed the boom of variants that would come just a couple of years later. Featuring the same McFarlane image adorned with varying colors, these alternate covers utilized different metallic inks and even included a platinum version prepared especially as a thank you for comic book retailers, predating Valiant’s initiative. “Then it was, ‘Hey, could we get away with two covers right now?’ Then fast forward a few years, and I don’t know if anybody ever even remembered my suggestion or not or if somebody came up with it on their own, but there it was, the silver and the gold and the regular,” said McFarlane. “I think there were also a couple of them in plastic bags or something like that. It seemed excessive to me even back then.”

This aspect of collectability led to rampant speculation and was a key part of the soon-to-hit crash. Just like Marvel and DC with their variant covers and event issues, Valiant was sucked into the fray. “There was just this really unique period that even no matter how well our books were selling, they would shoot up in value within a week or two. It was great while it lasted, but I didn’t fool myself into thinking it would last for a very long time. We would come out with a book and two weeks later it would be selling for 75 bucks,” recalled VanHook. His co-creation Bloodshot debuted in Bloodshot #1 with a new Valiant creation: the chromium cover. “The unique [chromium] process was just something that really clicked with the fans. So that helped drive enormous sales,” he said.

Spider-Man #1 (Marvel Comics)

Marvel had seen the same success with their huge sales for X-Men #1, which had five variant covers and, in McFarlane’s mind, was a turning point for the industry. “That’s when you really started getting into the foil covers and the hologram covers and all the other stuff,” he said. “It was that, I would argue, that helped in accelerating turning customers away from the stores.” At DC as Simonson watched fans rush to buy multiple copies of Superman #75 — and subsequent crossovers — she felt a sort of responsibility about the ever-growing popularity of comics as investments. “I personally felt like I wanted to tell people that they should just buy it if you want to read it,” she said. “Just don’t think you’re going to get any money out of it. But everybody seems to love speculation. I remember we had watched a TV special about the tulip bulb market going completely berserk and it’s the same kind of thing. I wonder if it’s kind of like the lottery where: You know when you buy your lottery ticket that there’s not any chance … but there’s that little flicker of hope.”

Layton was also having worries as Valiant attempted to chase the success and numbers of their publishing counterparts. “I recall sitting in a meeting, early into our success … where we mutually agreed, as the company’s management and minority stockholders, to never print over 500,000 copies of any of our titles. I hammered on the fact that the numbers that Marvel was selling on their number one title, X-Men, were not reflective of the number of actual readers in the comics market. Our own marketing polls indicated that Valiant had approximately 300,000 regular readers. Printing more than 500,000 copies of any book would eventually come back to bite us in the ass.”

That company-wide print ceiling remained for a while but with rising numbers came huge pre-orders streaming in from Diamond and the other distributors. The numbers Layton shared were impressive and overwhelming, with titles like Rai and the Future Force #1 hitting 900,000 copies, X-O Manowar #0 matching it, and the unbelievable feat of Turok #1 reaching 1,750,000 copies. “Of course, greed… is a bitch,” he said. “Eventually, the temptation became simply too great to resist and my partners began printing to speculator demands. That decision proved to have huge negative repercussions for us, and the entire industry, down the road.”

The Bubble Bursts

Anything that goes up must come down, and while the rest of the industry saw the suddenly slumping numbers as nothing more than a phase, Layton and Valiant’s VP of Manufacturing Fred Pierce had already realized that something was wrong. Unfortunately, they were alone in their worries and some of their superiors at the publisher had their own ideas about how to turn it all around. “As the sales figures started tumbling down, Massarsky pushed the ill-fated and ill-conceived Deathmate project on us. Mostly, it was conjured up because Massarsky and Jim Lee were best buddies at the time and had privately arranged the crossover without consulting anyone else in editorial or management,” Layton stated. “The project was literally jammed down our throats but we did our best to comply, even though most of the Valiant creators thought it was a really bad idea. It was an obvious ‘money grab,’ designed to bolster our sagging numbers. On top of that, the creators at Image Comics couldn’t make a publishing deadline with a gun to their head.”

He knew it wasn’t some cyclical thing. He said, ‘It’s going to get much worse.’ He was right.

One of those Image creators, Lee, recalled that the Deathmate press tour was the first time he realized the slump might not be temporary: “When you talk about the implosion and the downward turn in sales, I remember talking to someone during Deathmate — when we were taking these tour buses and going to stores — and this one guy worked in sales from Valiant and said, ‘Oh, you know, things aren’t looking good.’ And I remember that was the first harbinger — no pun intended — because he called it. He knew it wasn’t some cyclical thing. He said, ‘It’s going to get much worse.’ He was right. But he was in daily conversation with retailers and was looking at sales numbers. I’m sure they had a spreadsheet so they could see the overall trends. But for us it was always like, ‘We just increased sales 10%!’ Everything that we’d experienced up until then in our careers was an upward trend so I never could have imagined that this great ride we were on was going to hit its zenith and then take a sharp downward turn.”

Lee, Liefeld, and McFarlane were all still relatively young, living off the wealth, success, and shine of Image. As far as Lee is concerned, looking back he had no idea that the crash was coming. “I’ll say for me, others might feel differently but I was in full learning mode,” he said. “I’d say that my perspective on our thing was fairly myopic. It was really about us making a deadline [and] whether this [art] looks cool. It wasn’t about strategizing about the five-year plan or this is the look that’s going to be hot now or then; everything was in the moment. I think that was part of the appeal of it. It was visceral. It was very impactful. It was very immediate. These splash pages, these visuals, this bombastic storytelling. Everything was done to the Nth degree in terms of drama and energy, teeth-clenching and energy. Nothing was done in moderation. Nothing was held back. We were kind of like, if this works we should take it to the Nth degree. So the work felt young and kinetic, and it was connecting with the audience in a way that previous work hadn’t.”

Sales dived as customers grew tired of the constant events and variant covers. The average speculator realized that 10 copies of Spawn #1 couldn’t be used as a nest egg the same way Action Comics #1 had been for those lucky few — though during the recent mini speculation bubble of COVID those with a few copies of the debut of Spawn might have been happy they kept them around — meaning it wasn’t worth buying whatever the next hot #1 was, and many of the community of specialist collector shops known as comic stores began to close down. As Layton points out, a huge issue for the stores was the fact that the biggest comic supplier in the country didn’t allow returns. “That means that there are unknown percentages of monthly books that remain unsold at the retailer level, possibly amounting up to 20% of overall sales,” he said. “Eventually, the bloated inventory of unsold products leads to the comic shop going belly up and owing a huge credit debt to Diamond.”

Bloodshot #1 – with chromium cover!

Another young creator who saw the damage wrought by the crash was VanHook, who was only 26 when he co-created Bloodshot. “There were some of us who were doing things like buying condos and stuff, which is very smart,” he said. “Some of them were just blowing their money. I remember saying, ‘Just for what it’s worth, this won’t last. This is not normal. We’re going into a speculator craze. We’re going into a phase where we’re incredibly popular, but I’ve seen these cycles.’ But the biggest difference was that historically these would be three- and four-year cycles that would repeat. This was a time where we didn’t have that repeat action. We just kind of had a boom and bust and then it kind of, you know, never really came back to height.”

Could History Repeat Itself?

Comics sales have never again reached the height of the ’90s. Though the speculation trend has waned, it’s still a part of the business. Despite certain comics like young readers and original graphic novels selling better than ever, Diamond comic book sales to shops rarely hit close to the lofty heights of the boom. Layton has strong words about the possibility of another crash. “Sorry to say, it was not a singular moment,” he said. “Companies need to start thinking outside the box and explore creating entertainment accessible in price and content to a mass market and in a format that doesn’t have to be encased in plastic just to survive handling.”

“The speculation was caused by — there are a lot of factors — but one of the main factors was that you had people coming in from the trading card business and speculating on comics, buying cases of comics, and trying to flip them,” said Lee. “They were basically swapping them like commodities, unopened and unread. And one of the big positives, I think, of the business moving from art-focused to writer-focused is that you have more readers. I think we have a much broader base of readers and digital readers as well. And so I think our business is more diversified. We don’t have all our eggs in one basket. We have more readers who are buying comics, digital readers too, who are not buying comics to flip them.”

To Lee, the lower but consistent numbers are in stark juxtaposition to the boom where numbers were massively inflated by speculation and variants which, in his opinion, makes contemporary comics more stable: “When you have a million copies of the book, and I say 70% of that number — I’m just making up numbers — aren’t reading it, you can see how that would be dangerous in the long run. Now I think the bulk of our business — whether digital, young readers, and even our core direct market readership — are readers, and while there are people that are buying books based on scarcity, it’s still a relatively small percentage of our audience.”

You try to keep as many people as you possibly can and get them interested in comics, not because of their attributed value but because they’re cool.

While some of the interviews featured in this piece took place just prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, Lee and Layton both ended up being correct in their own way as the 2020 pandemic coincided — and in some ways led to — another speculation bubble in the comics industry, which is currently deflating but far less devastatingly. As people stayed inside and in some cases had access to more disposable income, they began to spend money on collectables including comic books. Though the trend had similarities to the ’90s boom and bust, comics retailer Ryan Skinner of Pulp Fiction Long Beach explains to IGN that the 2020s boom and not-quite-bust was unique in its own way and, while COVID was a factor, it wasn’t the spark that lit the fire.

“The market was already trending that way,” Skinner says. “But COVID sent it into the stratosphere. Pre-COVID we were already seeing a rise in sales and collecting, but when people were stuck at home, they were looking at the internet, looking at eBay.” Suddenly the folks who grew up during the original ’90s boom were thinking about the potential value of comic books as investments once again and now as adults they had disposable income. As he points out, we were also coming off arguably the peak of the comic book movie trend, with Avengers: Endgame, and the success of the movies impacting the way people collected comics with the announcement of new characters spiking the prices of key issues that featured them.

While the ’90s had the multiple variants and over-ordering trends, Skinner highlighted something that felt new and very much inspired by the way comics were sold and resold online, and it all focused on the concept of repeat printings of issues. “In the past a second printing was just a chance for someone to get an issue that they’d missed. And in the collecting community for the longest time, the first printing was the most collectable version of the comic.” Things changed during COVID as Skinner explains that “at some point people started to think of second and third printings as variants” and the publishers responded in kind. “One of the craziest things that I remember is when something got really hot like Donnie Cates on Thor, around Issue 3 or 4 they were doing five or six different printings of these books and each printing was getting ratio variants [covers that shops have to order a certain amount of an issue to receive].”

Unsurprisingly to anyone who lived through the ’90s boom, that immense interest — and exploding sales — of extremely specific but widely printed issues soon began to wane, especially as inflation went through the roof, although Skinner explains it wasn’t overnight. “It was gradual. My Spidey-Sense started tingling when people didn’t want to pick up all of their books.” While he’s seen a downturn, especially on the prices of key issues and widespread speculation, Skinner is reluctant to call it a bust. And he thinks there’s a positive side to it all and it’s all about the readers. “The hope is that you take all these people that get attracted by the hype — because you know it’s not going to last — so you try to keep as many people as you possibly can and you try to get them interested in comics, not because of their attributed value but because they’re cool.”

So what other predictions did the comics legends we spoke to have? Well, Layton had extremely interesting and timely thoughts about the ever-growing market of comic book films and streaming services, raising a point that in 2023 feels more relevant than ever. “Comics are now competing with their own parent companies, who are producing entertainment using the self-same intellectual properties,” he says. “Once an IP reaches iconic global status like an Iron Man or an Avengers, it’s hard to justify publishing print versions, which can be cost prohibitive and have little or no connection to those mass-market versions.”

But Layton’s not all doom and gloom, he has hope for the future. “I’m extremely grateful for all that comics has given me throughout my [nearly 50 year] career,” he says. “A solution is out there and I firmly believe that a Steve Jobs-like mastermind will come along… eventually… and create a whole new business model for the industry. Comics won’t die… but they must evolve to survive. But someone a lot smarter than me will have to figure it all out.”

 Bob Layton, Jim Lee, Todd McFarlane, and Louise Simonson tell the story of the ’90s comic book boom and crash.  Read More